Is Northwest Florida the Silicon Valley of the 2020s?

In Florida, students lag behind the U.S. average in science and mathematics. The state and the nation have failed to keep pace globally. Florida ranks behind 18 countries (including the 9th-ranked U.S.), according to the 2007 study “Chance Favors the Prepared Mind: Mathematics and Science Indicators for Comparing States and Nations,” published by Gary W. Phillips in the American Institutes for Research.

Declaration of Interdependence A focus on STEM subjects — science, technology, engineering and math — could have a huge impact on Northwest Florida’s economy, providing the work force needed to lure more high tech industry to the region By Margie Menzel Originally published in the Apr/May 2011 issue of 850 Business Magazine

The blackboard is covered with cryptic notes. “Accelerator: Megan … Arm: Jake.” Fifteen students pose with Roger the Robot, some holding energy drinks that they credit for helping them stay up till 2 or 3 a.m. these last weeks. “Married to the robot,” said Emily Gardner. “We were pulling all-nighters every night.”

Finally, on Feb. 22, 2011, the 120-pound “bot” — a 28" x 38" x 60" triangle on wheels, with a hook for an arm, holding a white inner tube — was shipped to Orlando for a competition with 50 other schools. And Gardner, a sophomore at Tallahassee’s SAIL High School, had added “engineer” to her list of career possibilities.

“I’ve learned so much mechanically,” she said. “I’ve learned stuff I could never learn from books.”

Now the students who built Roger are fixing their own cars and doing calculus beyond their grade level, says their teacher, Jasun Burdick. “It’s really great to have a project that makes the math real.”

Such classroom scenarios are taking place all over Florida, where students lag behind the U.S. average in science and mathematics. The state and the nation have failed to keep pace globally. Florida ranks behind 18 countries (including the 9th-ranked U.S.), according to the 2007 study “Chance Favors the Prepared Mind: Mathematics and Science Indicators for Comparing States and Nations,” published by Gary W. Phillips in the American Institutes for Research.

“If we want to win the global competition for new jobs and industries, we’ve got to win the global competition to educate our people,” President Barack Obama said after introducing his budget in February. Despite calling for cuts and freezes in federal spending, Obama said the time has come for a greater national investment in science and math education. “We’ve got to have the best-trained, best-skilled work force in the world. That’s how we’ll ensure that the next Intel, the next Google or the next Microsoft is created in America and hires American workers.”

In Florida, neither the business nor education communities have missed the implications of falling behind.

“East Asia is eating our lunch,” said Barney Bishop, president and CEO of Associated Industries of Florida, a major business lobby. “And until we get really serious about where we’re at internationally, I don’t see how Florida can fulfill its promise of being a place where people want to do business in an international economy.”

In 2008, the national State Report Card on Higher Education chastised Florida for its “fairly low performance” in educating its young, suggesting that it weakens the state’s economy by limiting access to a competitive work force. The report noted that while Florida’s eighth graders had improved in writing, they performed poorly in science, math and reading. The same year, Enterprise Florida’s Strategy Council found that 15 of the fastest-growing jobs through 2014 will require substantial math and science preparation, and said Florida is not only failing to develop an adequate supply of STEM-capable workers, but is losing ground.

“It puts a tremendous burden on the economic development process, because it limits what you have to offer in conversations with prospective employers,” said Dale Brill, president of the Florida Chamber Foundation and former director of Florida’s Office of Tourism, Trade and Economic Development. “The

No. 1 question that companies looking to move into Florida want to know is the quality of the talent supply — and STEM falls right into our ability to supply the future needs of employers.”

Indeed, a Florida Chamber Foundation report calls Florida’s ability to attract and retain highly trained scientists and engineers critical to a future innovation economy — and points out that in 2006 Florida ranked 50th in the nation for science and engineering Ph.D.s employed in the state.

And that shortage affects local businesses. Employers are finding it difficult to hire enough qualified workers in the STEM fields, said Chuck Brooks, a senior director at ARINC, a defense contracting firm in Bay County that provides support for the Naval Surface Warfare Center-Panama City division, Tyndall Air Force Base and the U.S. Department of Defense. And Leon Walters, president of the STEM Institute Council at Florida State University-Panama City, pointed to the attrition rate as area baby-boomers retire.

“There’s nearly always a requirement for engineers and scientists, due to people retiring and moving away and so forth,” Walters said. “Locally, I know there’s been a large turnover of retirees … There’s a large demand here.”

In 2006, the state report card produced by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education noted that as the well-educated baby boomer generation begins to retire, the diverse young population that will replace it does not appear prepared educationally to maintain or enhance the state’s position in a global economy.

Last year the Florida Board of Governors, which oversees the state university system, called for an economy that goes beyond agriculture, tourism and growth. “While those sectors have helped to build the state that we know, it is obvious that we need to do more to create the future that we desire,” ran the BOG report. “While they are and will remain vital to Florida’s economy, the existing three-legged stool needs a fourth leg that creates a more stable economic foundation and the capacity to thrive in the coming decades.”

Not only is there need, there is opportunity.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics expects employment in scientific and technical services to grow 34 percent by 2018, adding roughly

2.7 million new jobs. Employment in management, scientific and technical consulting services is projected to grow by a staggering 83 percent, in computer systems design by 45 percent. Demand will be spurred by businesses’ continued need for planning and logistics, the implementation of new technologies, and compliance with workplace safety, environmental and employment regulations.

Realizing the seriousness of the challenge, Florida’s business, military and education leaders are collaborating to reposition the state to compete more successfully.

“The STEM disciplines are the key to Florida’s economic future,” said Will Holcombe, chancellor of Florida’s State College System. “These scholars are tomorrow’s industry leaders in the cutting-edge technologies that will keep us competitive.”

Nowhere in Florida is the need for diversification into high-tech, high-wage jobs greater than in the Northwest, struggling to rebound from a double economic whammy — the Great Recession topped by the April 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

“STEM education is vital to economic recovery in Florida, and particularly in the Northwest Florida region,” said Judy Bense, president of the University of West Florida – and a science educator herself, former chair of UWF’s anthropology department.

Educators and business leaders predict a regional push to focus more on military and industrial interests and less on tourism.

“Diversification is key for us,” said Jennifer Grove, the workforce development coordinator at Gulf Power. “STEM talent is the key to economic development. That’s what we’re looking to cultivate in Northwest Florida.”

Nor is the need just economic. It’s also a matter of national security, said Ace Summey, technical director of the Naval Surface Warfare Center Panama City Division.

“STEM is very important to the Navy and to the Department of Defense,” Summey said. “It’s a critical national security issue that in the long term, we have U.S. citizens who have the capability to deal with science, technology, engineering and mathematics.”

The Chamber Foundation’s Brill says Florida can pull even, if not ahead, in its STEM outcomes, but the consequences of failure would be far-reaching.

“If we don’t wake up, the brand will have suffered so much that we will forever lag,” he said. “We can’t lose another generation.”

Marriage of necessity

“It’s not just building a robot,” said Jasun Burdick. “You have to build a team.” He was talking about the one-armed Roger, but could just as easily have been talking about Florida’s efforts to expand its students’ STEM career options — creating collaboration across disciplines, professions and grade levels to create higher-skill, higher wage jobs.

Those efforts are underway.

In June 2009, Workforce Florida and Enterprise Florida created a statewide council to strengthen the STEM skills of the state’s students. Business-led, it’s funded by a $580,000 grant from Workforce Florida, Inc., and designed to connect education, workforce, business and economic development leaders to build the STEM workforce and support innovation. It even has a STEMflorida Declaration of INTERdependence.

Among the pledges: ensuring Florida is equipped with the workforce development systems required to generate the needed quantity and quality of workers with the skills to advance the state’s knowledge-based economy. Those who have signed the declaration include such business heavyweights as the Florida Chamber of Commerce, General Dynamics Land Systems, Grace Healthcare, Gulf Power, IBM, Lockheed Martin, The MITRE Corporation, the National Forensic Science Technology Center, Pen Air FCU, Raytheon Company, Rockwell Collins, Scripps Florida, Torrey Pines Institute for Molecular Science and United Healthcare.

As Florida works to catch up in the STEM disciplines, its business and education communities are finding collaboration essential. Companies are reaching into the classrooms for talented would-be employees, while schools are finding the partnerships essential to providing high-quality STEM training. Roger the Robot, for instance, was built with a $6,500 grant from JC Penney and help from the faculty and machine shop at FSU’s High Magnetic Field Laboratory.

“If, as a state, we are going to attract the type of businesses that we say we are, then we’re going to have to have the workforce that would do just that,” said Kimberly Moore, CEO of Workforce Plus, the workforce development arm of Gadsden, Leon and Wakulla Counties. “So a first step would certainly be bringing to the table the key stakeholders, which include the K–12 system, our universities, our employers, our chambers, which serve as the voice for business, and making sure there’s a game plan to meet that need.”

In mid-February, those efforts got another boost. The newly revamped Sunshine State Scholars program hosted the top-performing STEM students from each school district at a recruitment fair and awards luncheon honoring their achievements. Also on hand: university and college recruiters, eager to discuss postsecondary opportunities and reasons to stay in Florida.

“We need the best and the brightest to join our march in both keeping and growing the national and global competitiveness of Florida,” said Frank Brogan, chancellor of the State University System.

Enterprise Florida’s “Roadmap to Florida’s Future” found that the changing economy is forcing the state to plan differently for future growth. It noted that for the past few decades, Florida enjoyed rapid economic expansion fueled by population-driven growth and consistently ranked among the fastest growing states. But, “as Florida emerges from the global recession, it is clear that the trajectory or future growth will, and must, be different … . Florida needs a plan to diversify its economy by building sustainable growth and expanding higher wage employment opportunities in an increasingly innovation and knowledge-based economy.”

So businesses like ARINC are stepping up. In January, for instance, the defense contractor made a $10,000 contribution to the Junior Museum of Bay County to support STEM initiatives. The company also contributes to Surfside Middle School, Arnold High School, Gulf Coast Community College and the STEM Institute.

“I know there’s active engagement by the schools,” said ARINC’s Brooks, “but without the resources, it’s extremely challenging for [them], especially with the financial crisis and the national government’s cutbacks on funding, the state cutbacks on funding, to find enough resources to keep those projects going.”

‘Drilling down’ into the pipeline

Florida’s K–12 students tend to be stronger in the STEM disciplines earlier than later. The National Center for Education Statistics found that in 2009, Florida fourth-graders scored higher in math than the national average; in the eighth and twelfth grades, though, they scored lower. That same year, Florida fourth-graders scored slightly higher in science than the national average, but by eighth grade, they scored lower.

“We like to focus on middle schools because that’s where things go awry,” said Leonard Ter Haar, head of UWF’s School of Science and Engineering. “Up to fifth grade, kids love to learn and they love to discover things. So if we can keep that alive in the middle school …”

But that will take a new model — with businesses, colleges and universities helping K–12 students and teachers.

Frank Brown, dean of Science and Mathematics at Tallahassee Community College, said the state must “drill down” into the K–12 grades to prepare students for the rigors of the STEM fields.

“Unfortunately, there’s a large number of students who, when they take the placement test [for college], must take developmental courses,” he said. “We are pleased to offer those, and we support those students, but it greatly increases the time it takes for them to get their degree.”

Those in higher education say it’s imperative for K–12 schools to interrupt the fear that students often develop for STEM disciplines

“We’re missing a lot of opportunities to have people be excited about the STEM fields,” said FSU President Eric Barron. “And I think that’s a case where universities have to help K–12.”

The STEM program at FSU’s Panama City campus, for instance, began in 2008 as a summer institute. The next year, 200 middle and high school students trained with teachers, scientists and engineers to program robots, study coastal waters and work with the U.S. Navy’s electronic sensors. The institute was partly funded with a $240,000 grant from the National Defense Educational Program and partly with a $100,000 grant from AT&T. Graduates can go on to Gulf Coast Community College and then, perhaps, to FSU Panama City. Given their connections to Tyndall Air Force Base, the Naval Surface Warfare Center’s Panama City Division and the many local government contractors, students with STEM experience have an advantage in the area job market.

Grove oversees the Gulf Power Academy, established at Pensacola’s West Florida High School to provide hands-on mentoring to a pipeline of talent. Calvin Mattin, 21, now works in the operations department of Gulf Power, one of dozens of students who moved from the high school program to full-time employment at the company.

“They brought people in from the real world,” Mattin said. “You got to actually talk with them and see how interesting their job really was.”

After a stream of appearances by Gulf Power employees, the students took field trips to the company departments in which they were most interested. Then it was on to a part-time job and, for 42 graduates of the Gulf Power Academy, a full-time career.

Mattin says he was always interested in science and math, but that many students tend to fall by the waysicalvin-mattinde in those disciplines as they get older. “The closer we got to high school, the fewer the people interested,” he said. “They’d say, ‘That’s too hard.’ Elementary school is when you make the best impression on kids — if they get interested at a young age, they might stick with it.”

Added Grove, “We all know that hands-on activities get anybody jazzed, especially kids. Give them a problem and let them go at it.”

Not only must Florida produce more STEM graduates, said FSU’s Barron, whose doctorate is in oceanography, but it must keep them from leaving the state for the high-paying jobs they’ll command on graduation. It’s also beneficial to students to be mentored by adults they admire.

UWF’s Bense has established a coalition of school leaders to promote school readiness.

“We get kids at UWF who never had a peer support structure or a family support structure,” said TerHaar. “They get some remedial stuff, and they just take off.”

Coming attractions

Like any marketplace, Florida must connect educators and their students to the employers who might want to hire the latter. That means internships for students and externships for teachers.

“The great opportunity is for businesses to connect to what teachers and students need, and for students to see it’s their responsibility to their future to connect to what businesses need,” said the Chamber Foundation’s Brill.

But the shortage of K–12 teachers with STEM expertise concerns many of the stakeholders.

FSU is trying to help those teachers who may or may not be experts in science and math. With a $2.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation, the university established its Florida Center for Research in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. Under the auspices of Sir Harold Kroto, who won the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1996, FSU is videotaping and posting online the most engaging, imaginative instruction for science and math students.

“FSU wanted me to explore how the Internet could be used more effectively to help teachers teach better, not just in Florida, but worldwide,” said Kroto.

That’s especially important in the Panhandle, which faces the challenge of wide expanses of rural areas and sparse population.

“Of the 29 institutions I represent, not one has its main campus in the Panhandle,” said Ed Moore, president of the Independent Universities and Colleges of Florida, “although many have branch campuses on community college sites.”

Such partnerships, coupled with distance learning, he believes will facilitate the spread of STEM-trained students.

FSU’s Barron is focused on connecting STEM education to innovation and advises students that they can learn early to be entrepreneurs. He wants to design programs that cross between business and other fields.

An example is the FSU College of Business ChempreneurTM Technology Commercialization Experience, a partnechempreneurrship between budding chemists and entrepreneurs. Teams of students and faculty assess the market for their inventions, conduct due diligence on patenting, assess their commercial prospects and look for partners and companies to bring their technologies to market. The program was tapped as a finalist for the U.S. Association for Small Business and Entrepreneurship’s 2011 Innovative Entrepreneurship Education Course Award.

“It’s generating enough interest that we want it to spread to other areas,” Barron said.

Better STEM outcomes “clearly cost money,” said Brill, but he advises “resisting the urge to throw money at the problem … I don’t know why it can’t be underwritten by the private sector. There’s a huge opportunity for the private sector to walk the walk. And they want to.”

Despite the challenges, Michael Plitkin, a program director at the defense contractor SAIC, is optimistic. He’s lived in Bay County 10 years and has seen the industry grow, providing more high tech jobs and gradually developing a more balanced economy.

His prediction for the region’s future: “I think Northwest Florida will be the Silicon Valley of the 2020s.”